I have two sons involved in high school band, and it’s turned out to be a pretty good gig for them. The band takes a major (fly somewhere) and a minor (bus trip) trip in opposite years. Trips are performance centered, with cultural and fun activities for the students built-in. Keeping the band going just doesn’t work without parental help and I pitch in when I can. I have chaperoned these trips in the past but I’m sitting this one out to see my son perform in his senior year without having to worry about loading and unloading tubas and rolling kettle drums in and out of trucks and doing bed checks. I also wanted to play tourist and was desperately in need to get out-of-town for a few days.
This year, the trip was to Toronto, which is about a 4-hour ride by car. But there is no way I’d be going by car, because you can train it to Toronto from Windsor, Ontario, just across from Detroit via the Windsor Tunnel. And why would any reasonable person not do that, right?
Round trip with taxes for 3 of us is about $290 dollars (US) . I calculated, however, that I could drive there and back for about $80.00 or so on gas, then you have to add parking to that ($39/day at the hotel) and cabbing or Uber’ing around town. No matter how you slice it, it’s still far cheaper to drive but the train is very convenient. And I absolutely wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a train trip.
Christmas Morning 1975’s Big Surprise
Since I was a young boy, among all other things that move, I’ve been fascinated by trains. I had an up and running HO layout on and off through my childhood, and I still have my Spirit of 76 train set from Christmas 1975 packed away somewhere. When I was a kid in the summer months I’d often bike about a mile east of my parents house to watch the Grand Trunk & Western freight train running south at 7:30 PM sharp every weekday evening. Or sometimes I’d pedal 5 miles west to watch the much busier two-line tracks in downtown Royal Oak, MI, running coal gondolas and car carriers up and back to service the GM plants in Pontiac, Flint and Saginaw.
Given that train travel is generally very far removed from the average American’s consciousness unless perhaps you live in the northeast, it wasn’t until I was almost 50 that I took a trip on one as a passenger. This was for a quick family trip to Toronto in 2016. This would mark trip #3. I went to Chicago last June on Amtrak, which has a station just 10 minutes from my house.
The only choice for passenger train travel nationwide in Canada is Via Rail. It is the national passenger rail carrier of Canada, and is a crown corporation owned by Canadian government. It was formed in 1977 out of the decline of the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific passenger service. It was formed in much the same way Amtrak was formed to keep passenger rail service going in the US. Like Amtrak, it is mandated to run as a business and has had its share of financial and other assorted ups and downs over the years.
The newer Via Rail station in Windsor sits just off Riverside Drive on Walker Road. This is truly literally the end of the line for the Via trains as you can see above. After unloading inbound passengers, the train has to back up a few miles through a series of switches into an actual “Y” rail section to turn around and reverse into the station to point the train to east to Toronto. For a city of its size, Windsor has a surprisingly large network of railways and yards to support the industrial base that still exists in the city, including the FCA minivan plant. There is even a rail tunnel underneath the Detroit river. At one time there was a rail ferry to take cars that were too tall to fit into the tunnel, but with the tunnels expanded and enlarged at some point, I can’t find evidence that this service still exists.
The check in process is pretty simple, just show your pass at the door. There isn’t a lot of wait time like in an airline to taxi to take off. At 5:45 sharp, off we went. The locomotive appears to be a General Electric P42DC and date back to late 2001. Amtrak uses the type as well.
The economy class ticket offered adequate comfort and amenities for the average person. Most of the train is configured in 4 seat pods , face to face, with trays that come out of the armrests. Business class tickets priced out close to airfare prices so I ruled that out. The coaches both ways were a bit old and worn, but comfortable enough. There was WiFi which worked OK for basic browsing, though Via offered streaming in-journey movies and shows. Sandwiches (which were really good actually), snacks and drinks were served.
Union Station -The Great Hall
In certain spots in rural areas where there is improved track, you can feel the engineer putting the spurs to it, and I clocked the train going close to 95 MPH on my phone GPS. Last year on my Chicago trip, likewise, there were some spots where we were over 100 MPH in spurts. I would say track quality overall was better on the Via lines over Amtrak. I cannot imagine how a bullet train would be in Japan or Europe, but I’d like to try one someday. We had about 6 stops along the way, in places like Chatham, London, and Ingersoll, Ontario, but came in right about on time into Union Station in Toronto. a very handsome structure. The journey took a bit over 4 hours, a bit longer than it would take you to drive the 230 miles, but you come out off the train feeling a bit more refreshed and less stressed than if you were driving.
The View from Roundhouse Park, Downtown Toronto
This is my third time in Toronto in the last three years, and its a great city to visit. Someone called it “New York run by the Swiss” and they’d be about right. Long ago it overtook Montreal as the business and cultural capital of Canada. Each time I’ve went, I’ve been very impressed. It’s safe, clean, prosperous, cosmopolitan, multicultural and buzzes with energy. The economy, centered around finance, the provincial government, and tech/IT is booming. There are endless residential and commercial skyscrapers everywhere, even outside the downtown area, with more going up and construction cranes visible off in the distance. I’m told from some locals I know that the issues for common folk is the high cost of residential and commercial real estate, which is among the highest in North America, making Toronto a very expensive place to live.
Toronto mass transit is excellent, inexpensive and we took full advantage of it. Mass transit is virtually non-existent outside of limited bus service in Southeast Michigan, so we were almost giddy with excitement to make use of it. We needed to get to the North York for two performances, at the outer limits of the city, and took a GO regional commuter train then switched over to a subway to get us the last bit. We were total fish out of water around the station, but the mass transit app made it easy and told us step by step how to get to where we needed to go. The cars were extremely clean and left on time, and at peak hours were nearly at capacity. I had not been on a subway this modern before. There are no connecting doors between cars like the ones I rode a few years back in New York. There is a flexible connection point between cars and train length was impossibly long…long enough to notice the bend when the train was in turns. We wondered how much user fares paid for all of this, and how much of it was subsidized by the local and regional governments.
As far as cars go? Well, if you lived in the heart of the city, you wouldn’t really want or need one. Like any major city, cars are not really needed and inconvenient and expensive to park. Mass transit can take you just about anywhere. And when that fails…taxis, Uber, Lyft are your backups. My lone observation about cars here is that the Detroit 3 brands are very thin on the ground.
At the end of my journey, I definitely could see how a modern, economical and efficient train network could make sense in the U.S. I personally would love to see a European or Japanese style high speed rail system linking the major cities of North America. It makes a lot of sense. But does the political will exist to spend the money to make it happen? Not likely, at least not in my lifetime. I think we’ll have to settle for little teases of what it could be at best.